Robert Ladds relates the intriguing afterlife of an image of Our Lady
The excellent article by Father Christopher Philips, charting the history of the church and shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, makes reference to the ancient image of Our Lady of Ipswich having been destroyed at Chelsea in September 1538. There might be, however, a happier ending.
For a number of years from 1987, a pilgrimage from Ipswich to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace at Nettuno, Italy, has been undertaken. In 2002, the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich was restored at the church of St Mary at the Elms, Ipswich. Over a number of years, an annual pilgrimage was supported and organized by the Society of Mary.
The original shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich is first recorded in 1152. Subsequent records cover the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, including reference to Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon paying separate visits between 1517 and 1522. The shrine was suppressed and the image, along with that of Our Lady of Walsingham, Willesden, et al, taken to the garden of Thomas Cromwell for destruction on 20 September 1538. Most interestingly, while it is documented that the image of our Lady of Grace of Ipswich arrived at Chelsea, Cromwell’s steward reported to him that ‘nothing about her but two half shoes of silver’ had been handed to him. It is also of interest to note that, although the Shrine at Ipswich was destroyed, reference to it in legal deed as a boundary description continued until into the eighteenth century.
At Nettuno, on the Mediterranean coast, an hour’s train ride from Rome, an image of Our Lady of Grace has been venerated since the sixteenth century. This ancient image and place of pilgrimage was to inspire and give rise to the ecumenical endeavours between Ipswich and Nettuno from 1987 onward. The statue of the Madonna and Child at Nettuno match closely the several descriptions of the Ipswich statue. The image is named locally as ‘Our Lady of the Graces’, but also as ‘The English Lady.’ Radiocarbon analysis dates the image between 1280 and 1429. Martin Gillett, an historian of thirteenth century iconography, in 1938, considered the image as being ‘in the English iconic style’ although the figure has been altered in some aspects including by the addition of a throne and in the placing of the Christ Child. The bombardment of nearby Anzio during the Second World War necessitated the removal of the image to Rome. Extensive restoration work was conducted in 1959 during which an inscription was found on the back of the statue: ‘Iu? Aret Gratiosus,’ a Marian phrase meaning ‘thou art gracious.’
Research has shown that the Ipswich shrine was unique in its dedication to Our Lady of Grace. An additional point of significance is that, when Martin Gillett first examined the Nettuno Image in 1938, he noted that the image was wearing a pair of half slippers in English Silver, of an early date, which relates to Thomas Cromwell’s steward’s report of 400 years earlier. The image of Our Lady of Grace of Nettuno is evidently Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich.
Theory and legend seek to explain how this can be. One theory is that, because of its value, the twelfth century image was, instead of being burnt, sold by an English official, perhaps even Cromwell himself. Another is that it was stolen by seamen or other workers during transport to or at Chelsea and spirited away for a cash sale. This latter theory ties in with the local Nettuno legend that Our Lady herself chose Nettuno as her destination. Italian sailors, caught in a storm off the coast, had to put in at Nettuno and, in spite of repeated attempts to sail on after a few days, were repeatedly driven back into port by the wind!
The Right Reverend Robert Ladds is a former Bishop of Whitby. He has led a number of pilgrimages to Nettuno.